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Albert Parker

Negro Sailors Are Still in the Brig

(16 November 1940)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 4 No. 46, 16 November 1940, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Because they bravely exposed the hypocritical nature of the slogans about a “war for democracy,” and because they warned other Negroes about the falsity of the promises of the recruiting sergeants about “joining the Navy seeing the world and learning a trade,” two of the fifteen Negro mess boys on the U.S.S. Philadelphia stationed at Long Beach, California, are in prison awaiting court-martial, and the others are prisoners-at-large, forbidden to leave the ship, held for “further investigation.”

Letters from two of the men on the ship sent to the Pittsburgh Courier this week appeal to that paper to publicize the fact that the officer caste is attempting to terrorize them because they dared to sign their names to the previous letter.

Afraid to Sign

One of them, ending “I am afraid to sign my name. One of the Philadelphia Boys,” sends the information that “Goodwin and Johnson were put. in prison for standing up for their rights and all the rest of us can’t leave the ship ... I hope the people of my race will not stand up and see men tell the truth and go to prison.”

The other, also unsigned, explains that the “Commanding Officer of the ship is holding all of us for an investigation trying to force the boys to tell who is the brains of that letter.”

Officers Grill Men

It is plain from this that the officers of the Philadelphia are determind to put an end to any protests to public opinion against Jim Crowism. They have arrested two of the men and are grilling the others to find out who the “agitators” and “instigators” are. It is inconceivable to them that men can be driven just so far and then they revolt without the help of “agitators” because they just can’t stand the torment and insult to which they are subjected.

But it is equally plain that so far they have had no success. The toys are sticking together and, in the face of intensified inquisition, are still appealing to the public for help.

Aid Comes

Already they are being joined by men from other ships, coming to their aid, helping as much as they can under the circumstances.

One of these, a mess man from the far-away Naval Air Base at Opa Locha, Florida, helps to break through the wall of silence surrounding the case by passing on to the Courier a letter he had received from Byron Johnson, who has since been thrown into prison.

Johnson, in answering a question from him on the results of their letter’s publication, wrote:

“We are now P.A.L. (prisoners-at-large). Of course, we can’t do much since they have us restricted until the outcome of the case. As it is now, we are unable to do anything since we can’t make any outside contacts. So it is up to you to carry on where we left off ... The boys of the Philadelphia are depending on everyone to buck us up.”

The sailor who received this letter signed his name, saying:

“If you publish anything about this letter, you may publish my name if you feel it necessary to do so. That, of course, would probably mean that I would meet the same fate Byron Johnson and his friends met. But I am fanatical enough about it all to allow that to happen to me too, if necessary.”

The Courier did not print his name.

This is followed by a long letter signed by Richard C. Watts. Donald Moran and William Seabrook, of the U.S.S. Sampson, stationed at Norfolk. Virginia, in which, after paying tribute to the courage of the Philadelphia men they proceed to uncover a system of Jim Crow conditions on board their ship that easily rivals for viciousness the story told about the Philadelphia.

These conditions exist not only in the every day life of the ship, but on Sunday too, for as they say:

“The Constitution clearly provides that all men are created equal, yet in our Naval churches – both Protestant and Catholic – discrimination is openly practiced. When conditions are so bad that people who say they are believers of God, are choicy about who sits beside them, then it is time that we pray and start to do something about it.”

“We (colored) men in the Navy are just flunkies, disguised in a uniform ... It will be found that on the smaller ships in the Navy, the mess boys really do not have a place to eat their food properly. He either has to stand up or sit down on the deck to eat. while the rest of the crew have designated tables, where they may sit, talk, properly masticate and enjoy their food.”

Sent to Brig

“We are subjected to be roughly spoken to three-fourths of the time, cursed at sometimes, with out a murmur of resentment coming from us. In case of resentment we are put on report, restricted, fined, or sent to the brig for being insubordinate to a superior officer, etc. ...

“Wherever we turn we hear the words, ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Don’t do that’, or you don’t get liberty for a week. We are not wanted to talk to each other when an officer is around, and in general, an officer is to be treated as though he were a god or king.”

Ships Are Jails

“Literally speaking, the Negro is in jail under observation but somebody thought it would sound nicer to call it the Navy ...

“The majority of officers seem to think that we Negroes are just a race of illiterates who have to have someone standing over them with a whip all the time and tell them what to do ...

“We are allowed thirty days leave each year, which we rarely get because the officers want us there to serve them ...”

Time to Wake Up

And the letter ends:

“We are not trying to stir up strife, hatred or discontentment, we are only trying to tell our people that it is time to wake up and go to the front and demand what we so justly deserve. We have slept long enough. Now is the time for more action and less talk!”

As the Courier points out:

“Col. Benjamin O. Davis has been made a general in the United States Army, but that means nothing. Judge William Hastie had been named a civilian aide to the Secretary of War, but that means nothing. Major Campbell Johnson has been made executive assistant to the director of selective service, but that means nothing. THE UNITED STATES NAVY STILL ABUSES, RESTRICTS AND JIM CROWS BLACK BOYS!”

End Their Control

That’s true and it will continue to abuse, restrict and: Jim Crow them as long as the Negro-hating, labor-hating generals and admirals continue to control military and naval training!

One Negro general, colored assistants and aides can do nothing as long as the military caste controls things.

Let us, in addition to defending these boys, take a page from their heroic books and carry to a finish the fight for workers’ control of military and naval training!

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